Tracing the origin of power: Energy importation and distribution in Metro Manila

Our approach to urban political ecology has been to understand Manila’s ecology as the intertwined flows structuring it. The two last posts will therefore be dedicated to the origin – where does it come from? – (1) and end of life – how is it used? – (2) of the energy required to (em)power Manila and the Manileños.

Environmentalists calling for the reduction of coal-fired power plants
Source: The ASEAN Post

Nationally, the Philippines has a renewable energy rate of 32%, which is rather promising compared to the surrounding countries, especially thanks to geothermal energy, for which the country is the second largest producer in the world thanks to its strong seismic activity (Mouton 2015). But the country remains Asia’s largest energy importer. Metro Manila is particularly overdependent on coal and oil, of which it has to import 90% of its consumption (Sahakian, 2010). With booming economic and demographic growth, a sustainable energy policy is increasingly crucial to Manila’s functioning.

Local governments (LGUs) are at the forefront of Manila’s fight to become self-sufficient, through innovative small-scale energy production units. Quezon City is the illustration of this local commitment. The city is cautiously building its future through various measures. It is a member of the C40 network of green cities, and it relies on its educated population to support its climate action plan: the city has a 98% literacy rate, and hosts the prestigious Ateneo de Manila University. Quezon City has grown to become the Philippines’ largest and richest LGU in recent years. With the help of C40 experts, the city is transforming its wasteland into a model waste-to-energy plant to recover methane gas from waste disposal (C40 Cities 2018). Quezon City also joined the C40 Cities Finance Facility to solarise schools and “provide reliable and undisrupted power supply” (C40 Cities 2017). Although these programs are implemented in the form of small-scale public-private partnerships, they appear to be controlled adequately by public authorities and the projects have so far achieved their goals. This green energy production generates jobs and financial resources for Quezon City, as energy is then used for street lighting and sold to Meralco, the largest electricity operator in the country.

Quezon City is solarizing its roofs.
Source: C40 Cities Finance Facilitator

Meralco is the only electricity operator in Manila. Thanks to its monopoly, it holds immense leverage over LGUs. The city’s energy sector is consistent with the dual process of decentralization and privatization already observed in previous articles: as most sustainable energy production initiatives are attributed to LGUs, Meralco’s monopoly over distribution raises questions regarding its commitment to providing affordable and reliable energy for all.

Indeed, the persistence of blackouts seems to indicate that the company is not able to handle Manila’s growing demand, which reminds us of our analysis of Manila’s private water supply operation. The distribution grid is also insufficiently developed and does not reach most informal settlements. In the case of water, the consequence has been rising prices and deterioration in the quality of infrastructure over time.

The web of of electrical wires poses danger in Quezon City
Source: GMA News

Infrastructure disinvestment also impacts citizens’ security in the face of disasters. In poor neighborhoods, interlaced electrical wires hang in the air. Faulty electrical wirings are a common cause of fire in informal settlements, particularly during typhoons. This risk is enhanced by the high price of network connections : urban poor communities deprived of connection resort to illegal wiretapping, thus further damaging the infrastructure. Here, the discourse legitimizing privatization through the argument of cost-efficiency reaches its limits: although expanding the network to these communities might not be the most profitable short-term operation for Meralco, the company’s exclusive strategy results in costly losses due to the residents’ “quiet encroachments of the ordinary” (Bayat 2000).

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Resources used:

Featured image: Shell.com. (n.d.) Keeping the lights on in the Philippines. Retrieved from: https://www.shell.com/inside-energy/keeping-the-lights-on-in-the-philippines.html

Bayat, A. (2000). From ‘Dangerous Classes’ to ‘Quiet Rebels’: Politics of the Urban Subaltern in the Global South. International Sociology 15 (3), 533-57.

C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (2017). Quezon City – Using solar power to improve disaster risk management. C40 Cities Finance Facility: https://www.c40cff.org/projects/quezon-city-solarizing-the-future-generation

C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (17/09/2018). Clean Energy in Quezon City: A Wasteland turned into a Waste-to-Energy Model. Retrieved from: https://www.c40.org/case_studies/clean-energy-in-quezon-city-a-wasteland-turned-into-a-waste-to-energy-model

Mouton, M. (2015). The philippine electricity sector reform and the urban question: How metro manila’s utility is tackling urban poverty. Energy Policy 78 : 225-34.

Sahakian, M. D. (2010). Understanding household energy consumption patterns: When « West is Best » in Metro Manilla. Energy Policy 39, 596-602.

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